Leadership on the Edge

It was a wonderful spring morning. The trees were dressing out after a winter of nakedness. The flowers were beginning to decorate the earth. The honeysuckle was spreading its perfume and the birds were adding wonderful music. What a time to walk. Gary and Linda Cook had just retired as pastor of First Baptist Church, Lawton, Oklahoma, and moved to our fifty-five and older retirement community, Heritage Ranch of Fairview, Texas. We had lived in this Dallas suburb for a couple of months when they moved there in December 2006. We had five miles of walking trails at Heritage Ranch and met three or four mornings each week for walking exercise.

Gary and I walked a little faster than Charlotte and Linda and thus we carried on two different conversations between the four of us. Gary and I usually talked politics (both religious and secular), theology, ethics, or sports. On this particular morning, we ventured into a more personal conversation when Gary said, “Bill, you have lived on the edge more than anyone I know.” I have known Gary since 1955.… Because of our long history as friends, when Gary said, “You have lived on the edge more than anyone I know,” I paid attention.

I have not been able to get beyond Gary’s remark, and that conversation is the genesis of this book. I am not egotistical enough to believe that the world is waiting with bated breath to read about my life story. Yet I am convinced that I have been shaped by living on the edge and that my leadership style is heavily influenced by this way of life. It is my hope that you will examine your own life and your own leadership philosophy and be honest with yourself about how you live and lead in this world.

As we examine history, we find that some of the greatest leaders lived on the edge. They were willing to take great risks. Look at the Bible and see Moses’ reluctance to go back to Egypt where he was wanted for murder and risk leading the Jewish people to leave Egypt. David was willing to risk his slingshot against the giant Goliath. The prophets were willing to risk their lives to speak a message from God. Jesus’ willingness to risk cost him his life. Paul was willing to risk everything for the sake of spreading the gospel.

Secular history is filled with the heroic lives of people who changed history with their willingness to take risks. The Protestant Reformation did not happen because Martin Luther was willing to play it safe. America was discovered because an Italian was willing to live life on the edge. The colonies won their freedom because George Washington was a risk taker. Eisenhower took a gamble with the weather on D-Day. You can probably think of many more.

Most great leaders have lived life on the edge. I make no claims about being a great leader, but I think I have traveled with good company by living life on the edge.

I worked for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship for the last twelve years of my active vocation. (I will write more about CBF later.) During those twelve years I preached in more than four hundred churches in thirty-six states and in several foreign countries. I was in contact with a great number of ministers. Looking back, I am amazed at how few were willing to take great risks. In religious structures, the local church is both the easiest and hardest place to take risks. It is the easiest place to take risks because it is the smallest organization in religious structures. The smaller the organization, the easier it is to make changes. It is the hardest place because religious structures discourage change or innovation.

Permit me to illustrate. When I became pastor of First Baptist Church, Abilene, Texas, in August 1985 I was proud to be the pastor of a large and influential church. After a few weeks, I received a call from a local pastor who told me that a denominational leader was coming to town and wanted to have lunch with us. I looked forward to it as I only casually knew that important leader. I had been his student in seminary. Over lunch the leader said, “In Texas we believe in letting a sleeping dog lie.” I mulled over his comment and replied, “What if the dog wakes up mad?” My fellow local pastor said, “In Texas we don’t believe in rocking the boat.” I said, “The occupants of the boat do not always have the last say in whether or not the boat gets rocked.” Their message to me was clear: I needed to play it safe in Texas.

In the Free Church Movement, in denominations where each church is self-governed (i.e., Baptists, Assemblies of God, Churches of God, Churches of Christ, etc.), taking risks can be dangerous. Pastors who begin to rock the boat, wake up sleeping dogs (longstanding traditions), or engage in risk-taking are in danger of creating tension with the finance or personnel committees. Their salaries can be frozen, or they can be fired. In a bishop-like structure (Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.), pastors who live on the edge can easily be frozen in place by the bishop.

Living on the edge can be dangerous. Think carefully before you choose to do so. But it can also be very exciting. A risk-taking life is seldom boring, and you can accomplish more than you ever dreamed if you are willing to take some risks. Let’s consider how some folks are natural risk takers while others find it difficult to live on the edge.

This post originally appeared as the Introduction of Living on the Edge: An Autobiographical View of Leadership by Bill G. Bruster.

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